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NXTUS offers support for startups to help them...start up

This group of entrepreneurs participated in a three-month program at NXTUS, which helped them develop their go-to-market strategies so they could grow revenue for their early-stage businesses.
This group of entrepreneurs participated in a three-month program at NXTUS, which helped them develop their go-to-market strategies so they could grow revenue for their early-stage businesses.

Mary Beth Jarvis, president and CEO of NXTUS, talks about trying to launch the next generation of entrepreneurs.

Wichita’s history of entrepreneurs is long and storied. Names like Cessna, Beech, Coleman, Lear, Carney and Devlin, to name a few.

Mary Beth Jarvis is the president and CEO of NXTUS, an entrepreneurial support organization based in Wichita. The nonprofit works as a middleman to get startups connected with mentors, customers and capital.

The organization has been around in some form since 2016. Since then, it has connected more than 500 startups to community assets and provided access to $6 million in capital.

Jarvis talked with Tom Shine and The Range about the current state of entrepreneurism in Kansas, the role of NXTUS and what separates the startups that succeed from those that don’t.

The interview was edited for length and clarity.

Interview Highlights

Tom Shine: Give me the elevator pitch of what NXTUS is and what they do.

Mary Beth Jarvis: So we're an entrepreneurial support organization. We help entrepreneurs build companies of significance. So growth-minded entrepreneurs can come to us. We connect them with a supportive community of mentors and resources with capital and with customers to help their businesses grow.

What's the current state of the startup world in Wichita right now?

We've got momentum coming out of the pandemic, which made people think differently about how they wanted to conduct their professional lives.

I talk about it as being a movement, becoming an entrepreneur, but also the business of supporting entrepreneurs, building networks around them that helps them have the courage and the skills and the tools to grow their businesses.

But in this movement, we're really at a moment, and frankly, our region needs to decide what we're going to do in this moment. Cause I think we've got an opportunity to compete in a way that maybe we couldn't before; against the coasts, against the Silicon Valleys, against the startup communities because of our quality of life advantages, because of the scrappiness of our entrepreneurs.

I think we've got the opportunity to really win at this moment in this movement. We’ve just got to make sure we get behind our entrepreneurs and make it happen.

When you connect with the startup company through NXTUS, what stage are they generally in? Are they early-stage, mid-stage? Where are you at with them?

So we will provide connections and assistance, mentorship, resources to any entrepreneur that walks through the door. But where we design in-depth programs is for folks that are just a little bit farther along.

If you're super early, you're thinking about starting a company, you've got an idea, or you're sort of germinating how to get off the ground, we have other folks we'll send you to for resources, for programs, for in-depth help.

When you are off the ground and now you're really trying to hone in on your product market fit, you're trying to test out your go-to-market strategies, you're trying to build your customer base, that's where our in-depth programs can really help you.

Or if you're looking for growth capital … we can hook you up there.

Is there one common trait that companies that succeed have or something they do that separates them from companies that fail to gain traction? 

Boy, that is the question, isn't it? So I think the quality of the founder – and that is both kind of their smarts, but also their sticktoitiveness – their willingness to ask for help, their connection to resources that are going to prove out their value proposition.

But honestly, it first starts with are they solving a real problem in the marketplace that people are willing to pay to have solved? And the closer a founder stays to the feedback from their prospective customer, whether that's a consumer or it's a business, the more likely they are going to be to succeed. Listen, listen, listen.

Wichita has a long, long history of entrepreneurs. … Some people would argue that we've kind of lost that mojo over the last two decades. Is that fair?

So I would characterize it this way. The mavericks that created, in some cases whole new industries … Those companies have now grown big, whether it's Koch Industries or it's Textron or it’s Spirit (AeroSystems). And that becomes a very satisfying and comforting place for talent to go. Those big organizations need lots of really smart engineers.

And so what I think we just need to do with intentionality is to cultivate the next mavericks because really smart people are now a part of those industries that have … become big. We need the next wave of mavericks ready to jump out from the security of their 401k and the job in a corporation and live the dream of an entrepreneur. And they won't do that if they don't sense that there is a supportive network out there to help them along on what is going to be a risk-filled and tough journey.

So I think building that network will ensure that the would-be mavericks of tomorrow actually make the leap and dive in with both feet to make their lives and our economy better as entrepreneurs.

Is early-stage capital the make or break item for startups? Is that really what kind of gets them going or not going? And why is it so hard to find? 

I have two answers for that. The first one is, I don't actually think it is the factor that causes the success or failure of early-stage companies in our region. I think the quality of solution and the resilience of a founder really sort of rank above that.

But here's what I would say about the capital piece: It should be hard to raise capital to grow a business because merit should win, right? Like, it should be a good idea, well timed in the marketplace.

But it shouldn't be impossible. And there are times that in this region it feels impossible. So we need to, and are working hard to, grow the universe of early-stage, risk-capital investors and channels for capital funding and make entrepreneurs more aware of that.

I'm pretty certain you work with companies both inside and outside of Wichita. Why pursue companies that aren't based here? What's the strategy there?

There's really sort of three circles to what we do. Wichita is where we live, and it's where right from the beginning of our organization we began to serve founders.

The next sort of ring is Kansas. We really are sort of chartered and intending to continue to be a resource for entrepreneurs at our growth stage from around the state.

The next ring is looking at businesses whose growth path could come through Kansas. They could build their customer base here. They can open their Midwest office here. They can thrive here by working through our programs and our connections to capital, to customers and to mentors and resources, see Kansas as a place where they can thrive.

Honestly, we need to change both by reputation and in reality Kansas' place in the innovation economy. We need to have our red carpet out for innovators and early-stage startups to believe they can thrive here, and we're trying to make a real difference.

One of your specific goals is to help diverse entrepreneurs and companies flourish. Do diverse companies face more challenges?

I think our overarching mantra there is that we are an inclusion organization that is going to meet promising founders where they are. … But we find traditionally underrepresented entrepreneurs that haven't gotten a super amount of attention from the capital markets or entrepreneurship programs need more of that … to get them up to where they're going to be able to take their great idea and their native promise and really make the most of it.

I look at the 50 companies that we took through our in-depth customer collision programs last year. Eighty-five plus percent of them were founded and led by underrepresented entrepreneurs in Kansas. Unfortunately, that still means a lot of things: women, rural, urban underserved, minorities, veterans. So we want to make sure that we are finding from every corner of our community the promising entrepreneurs.

Can you just tell me … a favorite story, about a company that you've … helped grow?

Early in the pandemic, two sisters who'd grown up here in Wichita decided that what the job market of then 2020 needed was a better way to onboard blue collar and service industry employees from the mass shutting everything down that took place in the very early weeks and months of COVID. So they started a company called Quick Hire. Well, that company today is called Work Torch, and they have become a career and professional management service; sort of the Indeed, if you will, of hospitality and service industry, restaurants, hotels. What it's become is this professional development, career development platform that is hugely successful.

Their own hard work has brought them every step of the way, but we've been alongside them finding them capital, finding them customers, helping to connect them to mentors and resources. And so whatever tiny percentage of their journey we've been, I'm super proud of them and just delighted to have been a part of that journey.

What's success going to look like for NXTUS over the next, let's say five years?

We've basically sort of doubled twice in the last five years. And I could see that same growth line continuing because we need that level of leadership in our ecosystem and help for our entrepreneurs if we're going to fulfill the promise of maybe winning in this moment of this movement.

And if we don't build like that, I think we're going to leave money on the table with respect to the upside we could have for the growth of our economy, the improvements of our quality of life. The superpowers of entrepreneurs is to change their own lives and their family's lives, and to make life better for everybody else that buys their products and that lives in the economy. They help grow. And so we need more of that and, I think that journey is going to continue.

Tom joined KMUW in 2017 after spending 37 years with The Wichita Eagle where he held a variety of reporting and editing roles. He also is host of The Range, KMUW’s weekly show about where we live and the people who live here. Tom is an adjunct instructor in the Elliott School of Communication at Wichita State University.